Which Wind Instrument Is Least Common in Jazz Music?

Almost all musical instruments can be used for jazz. We all know what the most commonly used instruments are, e.g., guitar, bass, drums, piano, trombone, trumpet, and saxophone. But what are the least common instruments? Specifically, I want to address wind instruments.

Which wind instrument is least common in jazz music? Here are the top 7 least common:

  1. Nose Flute
  2. Bagpipe
  3. Electronic Varitone Saxophone
  4. Bassoon
  5. Oboe
  6. Shakuhachi
  7. Ocarina

Although jazz musicians play a lot of musical instruments, there are still a few that they haven’t or rarely used. So, if you find yourself wondering, “which wind instrument is least common in jazz music?” read this article and discover some of the uncommon jazz wind instruments and the virtuoso musicians who used them.

Before we discuss the different wind instruments that are rarely used by jazz musicians, let’s briefly touch on the history and features of this distinctively American style of music.

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Jazz: Brief History, Features, and Musical Instruments

The African-American communities of New Orleans were where jazz saw its birth and uprising in the early 20th century. From its humble beginnings in the mouth of the Mississippi River, it quickly spread all over the United States and soon became the country’s biggest export to the world.

Some of the highly talented musicians who played an important part in the growth of jazz include Louis Armstrong (played the trumpet), Miles Davis (played the trumpet), Duke Ellington (played the piano), John Coltrane (played the saxophone), and Charlie Parker (played the alto saxophone).

Improvisation in jazz music is important because it already has a fixed chord progression (a series of chords played in a set sequence). This gives way to expressive performances, making listeners feel a variety of emotions, from pure bliss to sheer agony. Musicians often create and play their solos on the spot—not easy to do for the unskilled—to make a familiar song fresh and personal.

Jazz bands come in different sizes and arrangements. Small jazz combos (consisting of three to seven musicians) play in live music venues, such as nightclubs, while big bands (consisting of ten or more musicians) play in large venues, such as a dance hall.

Members of a big jazz band are grouped based on the instruments they play:

  • Woodwinds (bassoon, clarinet, flute, and tenor saxophone)
  • Brass instruments (horn, trumpet, tuba, and trombone)
  • Rhythm (combinations of double bass, percussion instruments, and guitar)

If you want to be a stand-out jazz musician, you need to find your sound and style. One of the many ways to do this is by using less common wind instruments.

Next, I go into detail on some of these rarely used wind instruments and jazz musicians who famously play them.

Which Wind Instrument Is Least Common in Jazz Music? Here Are 7 of Them

1. Nose Flute

Artist: Rahsaan Roland Kirk

The late Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a politically outspoken and blind saxophonist. He’s considered one of the most electrifying saxophone soloists in the history of Jazz. He’s known for several things: playing three horn instruments (manzello, stritch, and tenor saxophone), singing while playing the flute, and playing the nose flute.

About the nose flute:

The nose flute is a common instrument in many tribes around the world, particularly in the history of the tribes of Taiwan. The nose flute we know now, which is also called a nose whistle, was invented in 1891. If you’re wondering how it sounds, it’s quite similar to that of a slide whistle.

Learning how to play the nose flute can be challenging, especially when it comes to reaching a good intonation. Here are the basic steps:

  • Firmly press the blowhole under an angle against your nose.
  • Exhale through your nose only.
  • Make sure your mouth is slightly open and your tongue is slightly raised to prevent air from escaping through your mouth.
  • To change the pitch, simply change the shape of your mouth as you breathe out.
least common jazz wind instrument

2. Bagpipe

Artist: Rufus Harley Jr.

Rufus Harley Jr. was the first jazz musician who used the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe as his primary instrument. Jazz fans at that time weren’t happy about it and thought he was crazy.

But despite the criticisms, he was able to release in 1965 his first bagpipe Jazz album, “Bagpipe Blues,” which was a hit. Today, it’s no longer rare to find jazz-influenced bagpipers in different parts of the world, thanks to the daring Rufus Harley Jr.

About the bagpipe:

Are bagpipes Scottish or Irish? None of the above. Historians believe it originated from Ancient Egypt, and then it was introduced to the Scots by invading Roman armies.

The bagpipes aren’t the easiest musical instruments to learn by beginners, let alone master. It could take an average person to play the simplest songs—let’s say “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—between six months and one year.

If you’re serious about mastering this musical instrument, give yourself at least two years or longer to master it. And, don’t forget to sign up for basic or advanced lessons and buy the best bagpipes for your skill level and budget, for instance, the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe Golden Engraved Brass Mounts With Black Velvet Cover.

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3. Electronic Varitone Saxophone

Artist: Sonny Stitt

Sonny Stitt, or Edward Hammond Boatner Jr. in real life, was an African-American Jazz (Bebop style) saxophonist. During his lifetime, he has released over a hundred albums and was known for his warm and romantic improvisation style. Needless to say, he’s one of the best Bebop saxophonists of his generation.

Stitt is also not afraid to try new things. As what you’ll hear in his albums “What’s New!!!” (1966) and Parallel-a-Stitt (1967), he was one of the first jazz musicians to use and experiment with an electric Varitone saxophone.

About the electric saxophone:

The modern electronic saxophone would make a great practice saxophone for both amateurs and experienced musicians. It’s lightweight, compact, and equipped with other convenient features.

Does it replace a regular saxophone?

Not really.

However, you can still play any song in a similar way as a regular saxophone. Instead of the usual key and lever placements, it replaces them with buttons that are connected to a bite- and breath-sensitive mouthpiece, which gives you complete control over your expressive techniques. It also has a built-in headphone jack (so you don’t disturb your neighbors) and adjustable volume.

which instrument is least common in jazz music

4. Bassoon

Artist: Karen Borca

Karen Borca is the only full-time bassoonist who has made a mark in Free Jazz and Avant-Jazz. Free Jazz musicians are known for breaking Jazz rules, while Avant-Jazz (or Avant-Garde) musicians combine the styles of Avant-Jazz and traditional Jazz.

If there’s one thing Borca is best known for, it’s her work as a member of the Cecil Taylor Unit. Cecil Taylor is an American poet, pianist, and one of the Free Jazz pioneers.

About the bassoon:

The bassoon is a double-reed woodwind instrument, which consists of two thin strips of materials that are bound together to produce a sound through vibration. If you haven’t seen one before, it looks like a fusion of a bong and a saxophone.

It’s also unusually long and heavy. On average, it measures 4 feet and 5 inches (around 1.34 meters) long and weighs around 7 1/2 pounds.

As a solo woodwind instrument, it’s valued for its highly expressive sound. It produces a warm vibrato and a sound that’s a little similar to the deep, rich voice of a baritone singer.

A bassoon is hard to learn by yourself. It’s considered one of the hardest musical instruments in the orchestra to play. If you want to become a professional player, be prepared to spend many years on lessons and professional performing experience.

5. Oboe

Artist: Roscoe Mitchell

Master saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell is a legend in the world of Avant-Garde Jazz subgenre. His works reflect a wide range of music genres, from Funk to Rock to Classical.

Like most legendary Jazz figures, his expertise isn’t limited to one family of musical instruments. He can play the flute, saxophone, recorder, clarinet, and piccolo. He also played a role in the innovation of percussion instrument design.

Mitchell’s album, “Nonaah” (No nay ah), received the DownBeat Magazine Record of The Year award in 1978. And, in one of his 2019 shows, this award-winning album was arranged in a lyrical style for the flute, oboe, and piano.

About the oboe:

The oboe is a woodwind instrument that’s approximately 25 1/2 inches in length and weighs more than 2 pounds. It’s usually made of wood—although it can also be made of synthetic materials (e.g., plastic and resin)—with a black finishing, metal keys, and an interior chamber (known as a conical bore) that spreads out at the tip into a flaring bell.

The oboe isn’t for people who aren’t serious about learning it. Beginners can find it a challenge to control it and produce a good sound. And, if you’re planning to join an orchestra or pursue a professional musical career, you may need at least four years or longer to hone your skills on the oboe.

6. Shakuhachi

Artist: Ned Rothenberg

Ned Rothenberg is an Avant-Garde Jazz musician, multi-instrumentalist, and composer. He’s particularly known for his work in the Free Improvisation and New Music genres, as well as his exceptional skills in composing and playing on the alto saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, and shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute).

About the shakuhachi:

Made traditionally and mainly of bamboo, the shakuhachi is a Japanese edge-blown flute (also called the end-blown flute or rim-blown flute). The name means “one shaku eight sun.” Shaku is a Japanese unit of length that’s equivalent to 0.99 feet. Thus, the standard length of this flute is 54.54 centimeters or roughly 21.5 inches.

Unlike the clarinet or saxophone, the shakuhachi doesn’t have a reed (which produces the sound). Keys and pads, which you’ll normally find on a Western flute, are also absent. The average shakuhachi has five holes (four tuning holes in the front and one thumb hole in the back). To produce a pitch, simply blow straight into the end, not across the top surface like you would with other flutes.

Is it a beginner-friendly flute?

Unfortunately, it’s not as it could take a good amount of time before you could produce a tone. However, don’t let that discourage you from trying it. With proper lessons, determination, and regular practice, you can play a few simple melodies just after a few months.

If you’re interested, there are many affordable shakuhachi instruments out there that are suitable for both beginners and professionals, such as the Sunix Music Shakuhachi with Root End Pentatonic Zen.

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7. Ocarina

Artist: Vinny Golia

Vinny Golia is an American composer specializing in Jazz, Avant-Garde Jazz, and Free Jazz. Golia is also a multi-instrumentalist. He mainly uses wind instruments, such as piccolos, clarinets (alto and bass), English horn, saxophones (baritone, bass, soprano, and tenor), flutes, and many more.

Known for being a risk-taker, Golia isn’t afraid to combine the rich heritage of many genres, including World Music, Contemporary Classical, and Jazz, and experiment with musical instruments in his compositions. In a duet with French double bass player Joelle Leandre, Golia used an ocarina, then his bass clarinet to match Leandre’s intensity and heighten the emotions expressed in the “None That Are For Hugo” piece.

About the ocarina:

The ocarina has been around for more than 12,000 years. Much older than the flute, which was invented in 1830.

One of the great things about an ocarina is it’s portable. You can easily slip it into your pocket or bag then play it anywhere or anytime you want. Plus, it’s easy for a beginner to learn. Regardless of the type, ocarinas work the same way:

  • Press the ocarina to your mouth, and then blow air through the mouthpiece. Don’t breathe from your chest, but from your stomach. Unlike other woodwind instruments, it’s almost impossible to overblow a note on this ancient instrument.
  • Then, the air hits the labium, a sharp and thin edge, and produces a clear and pure sound.
  • If you want to change the pitch, you can cover (lowers the pitch) or uncover (increases the pitch) the holes.

Professional-quality ocarinas can be expensive. Fortunately, you can find many good-quality and budget-friendly ocarinas that are suitable for beginners, such as the Focalink Double Chamber Straw Fire Ceramic Ocarina W/Exclusive Hard-shell Case.

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The above list isn’t a full list, of course, as there are still many uncommon jazz wind instruments that weren’t mentioned here, such as the recorder, conch shell, harmonica, contrabass clarinet, and many more.

Related reading:

Flugelhorn Vs Trumpet – What Is the Difference Between Them?

Trumpet Vs Trombone – What Is the Difference Between Them?

Cornet vs Trumpet – What are the Differences?

What Are the Differences Between Irish Bagpipes and Scottish Bagpipes?

How Hard Is It to Play Bagpipes? How Long to Learn?